Job shadowing steered ASU outstanding grad to dentistry

Grad's full-ride military scholarship with the US Navy to support dental school, residency

Spencer Bigler headshot

Accepted to every dental program he applied to, Spencer Bigler will attend Midwestern University in Arizona on a military scholarship with the U.S. Navy, then do an oral and maxillofacial surgery residency at a naval hospital before serving his country as a Navy dental surgeon.


Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

With a love of working with people and a passion for human anatomy, Arizona State University College of Integrative Sciences and Arts Class of 2023 Outstanding Undergraduate Spencer Bigler said he first thought his future path would be going to medical school, “to be either an anesthesiologist or a surgeon.”

But that shifted the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, when he started shadowing anesthesiologists and orthopedic surgeons.

“I realized that the anesthesiologist did not do enough hands-on work for me, and the orthopedic surgeon was working 80 hours a week, making it hard for the family,” said Bigler, who majored in applied biological sciences at ASU Polytechnic campus and was married at age 20 to Livi Bigler, a College of Integrative Sciences and Arts psychology major. “I started second-guessing school and wondered if I should change careers altogether.”

About this same time he was asked to help out during the COVID-19 lockdown at an office of general dentistry.

“I didn’t have much experience, but they were understaffed and being overrun by emergency appointments,” he said. “I noticed that many of the more complicated cases — such as jaw fractures, complex sleep apnea issues and patients who had received radiation — were all sent to a specialist known as an oral and maxillofacial surgeon. After looking into the field, I found out that they are trained in both dentistry and medicine, as they perform surgeries and administer general anesthesia. I decided to follow one surgeon, and when I found out he worked less than 40 hours a week and had a happy family life, I knew this was the career for me, and I have never looked back.” 

Bigler, who is graduating with a GPA above 4.0, has worked at a dental clinic and had many other applied dental experiences, including a weeklong dental mission trip in Mexico, from his sophomore year onward. He also has set the paperwork in motion to found a nonprofit in the Dominican Republic that provides opportunities to exchange community service work, like cleaning up streets and beaches, for health care services. Bigler was awarded funds from ASU’s J. Orin Edson Entrepreneurship + Innovation Institute’s pitch competition to support the organization.

“This semester I interned at Arizona Maxillofacial Surgeons, where I work with some great oral and maxillofacial surgeons,” he said, “and I’ve learned many techniques that will help me out in the future.” 

To round out his dental school applications and solidify his knowledge, Bigler served as a supplemental instruction leader for Chemistry 116 and continues to tutor students in chemistry and organic chemistry. He was president of the Pre-Dental Club at ASU Polytechnic campus and a volunteer with the CISA Student Ambassador program

Still, Bigler knew that getting accepted to a great school would also rest on his ability to do well on the Dental Admission Test.

“I took the exam between my junior and senior year. The five-hour test covers topics taught throughout undergrad and other topics that I had to learn outside of my school studies,” he explained.

“After six months of studying and practicing with other ASU pre-dental students, I took the test, hoping to get a good enough score to be competitive,” Bigler said. “I was shocked when I found out I scored in the 99th percentile. I was ecstatic and knew that my dreams of becoming an oral and maxillofacial surgeon could indeed become a reality."

Indeed, he was admitted into all of his top picks for dental school.

Bigler didn’t just rest on his incredible accomplishments. He is sharing his experiences to try to lift others up, explained Julie Lim, College of Integrative Arts and Sciences assistant director for student engagement.

“Spencer’s innate desire to help others includes helping his peers here at ASU,” said Lim, who coordinates the CISA Student Ambassador program and connects with many student club leaders. “As president of the Pre-Dental Club, Spencer is teaching his peers about the dental field and supporting their goals of getting into dental school. Once others learned of Spencer’s DAT scores and admission into dental programs, he was inundated with questions and requests for tips and advice. To help as many interested individuals as possible, Spencer created a resource to address these questions.”

His comprehensive guide, How to Get into Dental School from Start to Finish, is free to the public to help preprofessionals get access to the tools they need to get into dentistry. It even includes some tips that are specific to ASU students.

Bigler plans to turn it into a website by fall. “I was lucky enough to have a ton of social capital around me as I prepared for dental school,” he noted in the guide, “and I want to make that knowledge public for anyone who is searching to have access, without having to pay any fees to get that knowledge.”

“Spencer has continued to amaze me as he takes steps to not only reach his goals but is also focused in how service can be tied along with his career path,” added Lim. “During my interactions with students, most plan and think about what they want to do in the future. Spencer, on the other hand, is doing it now.”

Bigler shared these additional reflections about his ASU journey and plans for the future.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: ASU taught me the importance of social capital and how not everyone has equal amounts of it. Social capital is the predisposition that some people have to succeed due to their networks and social circles that can help them get where they want to get. Unfortunately, many people are born into social circles that make it hard for them to succeed, not because they are not smart enough or unwilling to work, but because they do not know where to look or who can help them. ASU taught me to not only be aware of social capital, but also contribute to society by helping spread knowledge and social capital to the general public. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: Living in the Dominican Republic at the time, I had applied to three colleges for undergrad a month before classes started. The first college to reach out to me to say I was accepted was ASU, two weeks before classes started. I knew I didn’t want to wait a semester to start college, so I decided that I would go to ASU. Looking back, it was one of the best decisions I have made. 

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU and what was it?

A: I had several professors teach me profound lessons while here at ASU. One that sticks out to me was a lesson taught by Professor Vikas Garg, who teaches organic chemistry at the Polytechnic campus. He and I had formed a good professor-student relationship, as I was his TA, and he helped me study for the Dental Admission Test from time to time. After class one day, we got talking about cultures and how American culture differs from the culture in India where he is from. He knew that I was independent form my parents and married by the age of 20. He told me that he thought the American culture of becoming independent at a young age has proven to be a strong driving force in the success of young American leaders. At the time I felt overwhelmed juggling school, work, family life and future career plans, so hearing a professor giving me inspiration that all my hard work was making me a better person was both comforting and eye-opening. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: “Be a creator of your circumstances, not a creature.” This quote was given to me as I was learning Spanish in the Dominican Republic. I kept blaming the dialect and other people for my not being able to understand and speak Spanish fluently. After hearing this quote, I realized that the power was in me to take control of my circumstances and create something good out of it.

While working at Arizona Maxillofacial Surgeons, I heard a different quote that had similar meaning behind it. When an assistant stated that there was a problem with one of the autoclaves, the surgeon responded in a calm but firm voice, “Be a part of the solution, not the problem.” The assistant right away understood, and rephrased the statement to say, “There is a leak in the autoclave, and it appears to be the seal; may I order a new seal?” This was a live example for me of someone who started by being a creature of their circumstance by posing a problem, then corrected themselves and became a creator of their circumstance by posing a solution. We all have the power to do this in our everyday lives. Do it and it will change the way you see the world. 

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?  

A: I loved going to the library and borrowing markers to use on the whiteboards. I can’t count how many exciting and engaging study sessions I had with fellow Sun Devils working up problems, and making fun ways to remember topics around the whiteboards in the library. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I’ve accepted admission to dental school at Midwestern University in Arizona on a full-ride military scholarship with the U.S. Navy. I will get my four-year education there and then plan to do an oral and maxillofacial surgery residency at a naval hospital for another four years. Then I plan to serve my country as a surgeon in the Navy for a few years before settling down and working in a private practice. While on this journey I plan to start a family with my amazing wife, Livi; invest in real estate; and participate in dental humanitarian work.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Last summer I went back to the Dominican Republic and noticed a need for better access to health care, as well as cleaner streets and beaches. That inspired me to start a nonprofit organization known as MATA (Making A Thriving Atmosphere). Its goal is to make a thriving atmosphere for professionals and patients by helping them get access to what they need in exchange for service. Many Dominicans do not have the money to get the health care they want but have plenty of free time and are always in search of a job. MATA will find service opportunities that fit patients’ physical capabilities that they can do in exchange for treatment and access to health care. With $40 million I would be able to go further than I imagined by helping people in more countries than just the Dominican Republic, and reach out to other facets in health care outside of dentistry. 

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